The World’s Oldest Companies

In the ever-evolving landscape of global business, where startups rise and fall in a frenzy of new ideation, there exists a rare breed of companies that have weathered the storms of time. 

It’s no small feat to maintain a business for the long haul. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about twenty percent of new businesses fail within the first two years.  

But it doesn’t stop there. Forty-five percent of them fail in the first five years. Sixty-five percent of new businesses fail during their first ten years.  

But while it’s challenging to endure . . . it’s not impossible. Looking into the history of some of the world’s oldest businesses gives insight into what it takes to make it for the long haul.  

What makes a company worthy of that long, enduring success? While the lessons may be more of an “art” than an exact science, there are certainly trends that you can see if you follow along closely. 

Legacy Etched in Wood 

Nestled in the heart of Osaka, Japan, Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd. holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest continuously operating company, with a history spanning over 1,400 years.  

Founded in 578 AD, during the sixth year of Emperor Bidatsu’s reign, this construction company has witnessed the ebb and flow of Japan’s rich history. 

What sets Kongō Gumi apart? It’s not just their longevity but their unwavering commitment to tradition and craftsmanship. For centuries, the company specialized in the construction of Buddhist temples, a legacy that has been passed down through forty generations.  

In order to keep the family name in the businesses, generations who had only daughters would have their son-in-law take the family’s last name. The legacy was maintained for hundreds and hundreds of years.  

So what did they get right? They took a niche and became the absolute best at it. They honed their craft and became experts in a very specific industry. Their expertise earned them the business . . . their integrity kept it. 

From Pulp to Profits 

If we hop over to northern Europe, there’s another company that has weathered generations. Stora Enso, a Finnish-Swedish multinational pulp and paper manufacturer, stands as a testament to resilience. Founded in 1288 in the small village of Storå in Sweden, this company predates the printing press and has evolved through centuries of industrial revolutions. 

“Change before you have to.” 

—Jack Welch 

The secret behind Stora Enso’s longevity? Adaptability. Over the years, the company transitioned from ironworks to paper and pulp production, showcasing a remarkable ability to pivot with the times.  

One of the biggest lessons to learn in the last few unprecedented years is the ability to see the swell of change coming before it hits you. “Pivot” could surely be the word of the decade.  

Stora Enso embraced innovation. It invested in sustainable practices and diversified its product portfolio with a vision of crafting a company built for tomorrow that operated today.

They consistently engaged in thorough surveys with both existing and potential customers to pinpoint unmet needs and desires in the market. Committed to being pioneers, their goal was to deliver the products of tomorrow, today. By the time competitors began to adapt, they were already poised to introduce innovative new products, rendering their rivals’ offerings seemingly archaic. This strategic foresight ensured they remained not just a step ahead, but a whole era ahead in their industry. 

Building a Legacy beyond
the Bottom Line

In the hustle of the modern business world, these ancient companies remind us that success is not just about profit margins and market share. It’s about building a legacy that transcends generations, leaving an indelible mark on human history. 

We are moving faster than ever in today’s world. Behemoth companies—Apple, Amazon, Google, etc.—have become meteoric successes. These companies generate billions of dollars in revenue every year—a number I am sure was unfathomable in 578 AD Japan.  

But the question I have is, will these companies still be around in 1,000 years, or are they simply a shooting star, sure to fall after their meteoric rise? 

What can we learn from the enduring, timeless spirit of Kongō Gumi and Stora Enso? 

Narrow your focus. Lead change. Manage business ventures with a sense of consumer-focused purpose and a goal of becoming one of the world’s oldest companies. 

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